4/15/11 The Wild One
They tell me dogs are descended from wolves and the two are 99.8% genetically the same. You can cross a wolf with a dog and get a wolf-dog. A wolf-dog can breed with another dog or wolf to get a quarter-breed, and on and on for an endless variety of mixtures. So we ask, would a wolf-dog be a new species and are all the various combinations new species or sub-species or what.
Looked at that way it seems a wolf might be just another breed of dog. A Chihuahua and a Great Dane are both dogs and seem more different from each other than a lot of dogs seem from a wolf. Cross a German shepherd with a husky and the results will look a lot like a wolf.
On the other hand, there is an inherent behavioral difference between wolves and dogs. Basically, dogs relate to people and wolves don't. If you take a wolf pup and raise it like a dog among people it doesn't grow up and act like a dog, it acts like a wolf. Basically you might say wolves are naturally wild and dogs are naturally tame toward people.
Looked at that way, different as they might be all dogs are alike and wolves are different. All the same, is a behavior difference enough to make it a separate species? I mean, it seems certain behaviors run in families of people, but that doesn't make them a different species, does it?
Poodles were originally bred to be hunting dogs. Even that rather odd haircut they get was not for show, but had a purpose in the field. To understand it we need to go back to the breed's beginnings in Germany, not France despite being called french poodles.
Hunting dogs often go in the water to retrieve downed fowl and what-have-you. That water can be pretty cold so they bred poodles to have a thick, curly coat for insulation. Unfortunately that didn't work as planned as such a coat got waterlogged and the dog sunk like a stone. Which wasn't good for the hunt or the dog.
To solve that they trimmed off excess fur, selectively rather than all over. They left fur to protect vital areas, the heart, lungs and brain up front and the kidneys at the rear. That's the reason for those two puffs near the tail. They also protected leg joints with balls of fur near the feet. That pom-pom at the tip of the tail worked like a flag to spot the dog in the water. Something like the way folks put a ball on their car antenna to find their car in a parking lot.
I don't imagine people much use poodles for hunting any more. Poodles aren't classed as retrievers, but as non-sporting dogs. While its purpose has rather gone by the board, the haircut remains. Miniature a toy poodles get it, too, even though you'd never go hunting with either of them.
2/24/11 Ban the Bands
Save the penguins — leave them alone. You know how they say if you love something set it free? This is a case something like that. A recent report has it that banding the aquatic birds is doing them no favors. To quote some-source-or-other-I-forget:
Some scientists studying penguins may be inadvertently harming them with the metal bands they use to keep track of the tuxedo-clad seabirds, a new study says.
The survival rate of King penguins with metal bands on their flippers was 44 percent lower than those without bands and banded birds produced far fewer chicks, according to new research published Wednesday in the journal Nature. The theory is that the metal bands — either aluminum or stainless steel — increase drag on the penguins when they swim, making them work harder, the study's authors said.
This relates to one of those things they talk of in science circles. The act of observing or measuring can change what it is you're observing or measuring. Basically it's because measuring tools can have effects. An observer just being there can have an effect, too. It's like, if you walk through the forest the animals flee which they wouldn't if you didn't.
I think it's similar to what happens with reality TV. People act differently knowing they're on TV even though they're supposed to be acting like their natural selves. I suppose they are being themselves, only moreso. But then, who doesn't act differently in public compared to in private? Nobody picks their nose on a date, but at home alone they'll go in up to the elbow.
2/3/11 Zapping Along
I heard where the Chevy Volt got a Car of the Year Award. I guess that's OK since awards of this kind are mostly a matter of opinion. All the same, electric cars of any sort have the same drawback they've had for over 100 years and why they died out in the early 1900s. Batteries, which are heavy and don't store enough energy.
In listening to some people talk about the Volt there seems a view the battery problems will be rectified as hybrids become more popular. The whole "all new technologies have rapid improvements" idea. Like computers and plasma TVs. Except batteries are hardly a new technology. They've been working on them for decades.
Anyway, the hybrid concept isn't exactly new either. Boiled down to basics a hybrid powers the wheels with electric motors from electricity generated by an onboard internal combustion engine. This concept has been up and running for 75 years or so. It's called a diesel-electric locomotive. Only the Volt also has batteries in the loop.
Unless they come up with vastly improved batteries I don't see the Volt taking the automotive world by storm. If you really want to save lots of gas commuting, get a vehicle that gets 200 miles to the gallon. It's called a motorcycle. Or an electric motorcycle, if they ever make one.
Paleontologists tell us about towering beasts that once roamed the Earth, dinosaurs. Natural history museums prominently display the skeletal remains of the great creatures assembled like Tinker-toy sculptures. Hollywood has dramatically portrayed the ferocious monsters in numerous blockbusters. There's only one problem, by our current understanding of biology and physics dinosaurs are impossible.
Muscle strength is proportional to size. A muscle two times the diameter of another will be four times as strong. But weight increases even more, a muscle twice the diameter will weigh eight times as much. This relationship limits the size of any animal. Calculations indicate the heaviest elephants of today approach this strength to weight limit.
The largest dinosaurs were many times as big as an elephant. An animal that size wouldn't even have the muscle strength to stand, let alone walk around. Yet large numbers of unearthed dinosaurs bones show they must have existed. The numerous footprints they left behind showed they walked around on land. On top of that there were elephant-size dinosaurs that flew. Imagine the lift needed for that. What gives?
One can imagine two possibilities. Dinosaurs had super strong muscles, or dinosaurs were super lightweight. My guess as to the biological plausibility of super strong muscles would be just that, a guess. Still, one wonders how different such muscles would be, how much energy can you get out of a calorie and how many calories super strong muscles burn.
The other possible answer, super lightweight dinosaurs, suggests a simpler solution, Earth's gravity was less in the past. Consider this, an elephant on the lower gravity moon would be just as strong but very much lighter. It could grow much bigger before reaching the strength to weight limit. In other words, grow as big as a dinosaur. And be light enough to fly, too.
Physicists say gravity is a constant. But have they proven it? They certainly know what gravity does, but not what exactly it is, how it works. So how do they know it is unchanging?
In any event, something must account for dinosaurs which couldn't exist today by our current understanding. Ponder one more thing, what if an increase in gravity is what caused dinosaurs to go extinct?
12/15/10 Road or Railroad
People travel a lot more by rail in Europe than in the U.S. On the continent they have lots of commuter trains and high-speed rail, The States have some subways and Amtrak. Clearly Europeans use their railroads differently than Americans. What is largely unseen is the other side of the railroad coin, freight traffic.
Stateside railroads are mainly used to haul freight. About 40% of fright moves by rail in the U.S., and about 30% goes over the road in trucks. In Europe, on the other hand, only 10% of freight goes by rail and about 45% goes by truck. It's like the Europeans take people out of cars and put them on trains, and take the freight off the trains and put it in trucks.
Co-ordinating the two very different types of trains isn't easy. Freight trains are much longer and slower, passenger trains are faster and shorter, make more stops, run on tighter schedules, and run more often at peak commuter times. By running very few passenger trains, U.S. railroads move freight much more efficiently than the European roads, at one-sixth the cost of Germany for instance.
Rail isn't the only difference in how freight travels in the U.S. and Europe. As you can imagine, being a really big peninsula sending freight by ship makes a lot of sense in Europe. You can go from Greece to Finnland by sea. In America that pesky Canada is in the way up north and just as pesky Mexico blocks half the southern route.
In a way, freight trains make more sense than passenger trains. Which is why there aren't many passenger trains in the U.S. After all, they didn't die out after WWII because the railroads were making too much money on them.
11/22/10 Coffee Break
Coffee is the number one cash crop in the world. Coffee is also the world's most widely used pharmacological stimulant. Coffee comes in many forms, espresso, latte, drip, instant, freeze-dried, and with many nick-names. A favorite is cuppa joe. This came from WWII, the drink of G.I. Joe. There's also java, as in mocha java, which may or may not come from Java. While coffee is associated with Colombia and not Java, it's not native to South America.
Possibly the most famous decaffeinated coffee brand is Sanka. The name comes from the French for 'without caffeine', similar to sans culotte which means 'without breeches'. Not that coffee has anything to do with pants, that's a whole 'nother thing. Anyway, Sanka leaves off 'ffiene', a lot like decaf leaves off 'fiene'. Though you might ask, why spell Sanka with a K when the French don't spell caffeine it with a K. It's because Sanka came from Germany and Germans almost always use a K for a K sound. Like canon is kanone. Carl is Karl. Cold is kalt. Cabbage is kraut. Though kraut ain't much like the word cabbage, is it?
Maybe I could add more coffee trivia, but I'll leave it at that. Consider this entry Fun Facts lite. Sort-of the decaf version. As in not very stimulating.
10/20/10 How's it Feel?
When you touch something and it feels cold or hot, are you really feeling the temperature of the object? I mean, do your senses extend out of your body into something else? When you walk around bare-footed, why does a stone floor feel cold and the carpeting warm even though the furnace (or sun) is heating everything to the same temperature?
As you may have guessed, or already knew, you don't feel the temperature of other objects. What you feel is heat loss or gain in your skin. This is interpreted as the temperature of the object you're touching by proxy, so to speak. A metal or stone object will feel colder than a piece of cloth or carpeting at the same temperature because metal and stone are a better conductors so the heat flows out of your body much quicker. That makes it feel colder even though it's not.
The conductive property of metal can come in handy. For instance, if you need to thaw out a steak, place it on a sheet of metal, or in an unheated frying pan and it will thaw quicker than on a wood cutting board. The heat in the metal will flow into the steak quicker than from wood, and much, much quicker than from the air.
9/30/10 Less is More
Folks naturally figure if you increase gas mileage you'll save gas. Well, maybe. Obviously you'll use less per trip, but if driving around is cheaper, will you make more trips? I mean, when something costs less we're tempted to use more rather than the same amount or less. For instance, if the price of clothing were cut in half are we likely to buy the same amount and pocket the savings, or fill our closets to overflowing because now it's cheap to be stylish? This brings us to...
In 1865 William Stanley Jevons wrote a book explaining how coal consumption rose rapidly after James Watt introduced his improved steam engine. Watt's engine made coal power more cost effective, leading to more steam engines used for more things. Total coal consumption increased even though coal used for any particular application dropped through increased efficiency.
Jevons' premise: "[A]ny increase in the efficiency with which energy is employed will cause a concomitant decrease in the price or cost of that resource when measured in terms of work done. Thus, with a lower price/cost per unit of work, more work will be purchased. This additional work need not be for the same product, but it may be displaced into the purchase of new product ranges or work."
The name of Jevons' book, The Coal Question; An Inquiry Concerning the Progress of the Nation, and the Probable Exhaustion of Our Coal Mines. Rather a long, you might say inefficient title. That was the style back then, unlike today where books tend to have short, snappy titles. Maybe people these days have shorter attention spans. Or maybe folks back then did judge a book by its cover.
8/19/10 You Know, the Big Guy With the Bolts in His Neck, What’s-his-name
As you may know already, Frankenstein was the name of the doctor and not his creation. You likely also know Dr. Frankenstein's assistant was named Igor. Frankenstein's monster had a name, too. Do you know it? If you don't, here's a hint: what would a man "playing God" name the "man" he created?
The creature was named Adam.
Yes, a short one this time. Feel cheated? Well, there is a picture and a picture is worth a thousand words. So this entry is one thousand, one hundred forty-three words long. One thousand, one hundred forty-six if contractions count as two words. Or one thousand, one hundred thirty-eight if hyphenated terms count as one word.
7/16/10 Invasive Biodiversity
Previously in FF&T we examined how there's no such thing a weed. At least biologically. A weed is a plant you don't want to grow where it's growing. In other words, a weed is a human judgement. If there were no people there'd be no weeds.
Now we look at a related topic, invasive species. To a large extent an invasive species is also nothing more than a human judgement. What I mean is, most species at one time or another were invaders of new habitat. Only we call that colonizing. They didn't spring up all over the place at once.
Take eagles, for instance. There are various eagle species all over the world. All of them genetically related. How did that happen? Did they all spring up separately? Unlikely. Were they all one progenitor species at one time? How did that progenitor species exist all over the world? Did it spring up everywhere at once?
Somehow at some time eagles spread around the world, they colonized, they were invasive species. This can happen a few times a long time apart so you get more than one eagle variety in the same place. Like bald eagles and golden eagles in North America. They may have come from the same progenitor, but the early arrival developed separately so that when the later one arrived they were different.
This is how you get biodiversity. And isn't biodiversity a good thing? So then, colonizing species add biodiversity. Since an invasive species is the same thing, they add biodiversity, too. The adaption of the new species to the habitat and the habitat to the new species is the same process however the new species got there. This is one of the underlying mechanisms of evolution.
What usually happens when a new species arrives is an initial population explosion, followed by a crash. After that the new species settles into it's new niche as part of the habitat. That's what happened with the alewife in the Great Lakes in the 1960s. At one point this invasive species accounted for some 80% of the fishlife in the lakes. One year there was a massive die-off as they over-reproduced for the food supply. Their numbers never recovered to that level, though the numbers of the other native fish did. Now the alewife is just another part of the Great Lakes habitat.
This pattern has recurred over and over through the millennia when new species arrive. Call it invasion, or call it colonization, the process and the results are the same. So then, is an invasive species nothing more than a human judgement, like the notion of a weed?
Consider one more thing, philosophically. Is there a time when the natural world reaches perfection so it shouldn't change thereafter? Is there a point when evolution should stop? Is being against invasive species like being against evolution? Just something to consider.
6/16/10 Two Bits for Free
Sugar is a preservative. What do you think preserves the fruit in preserves? Fresh fruits will spoil, rot away in a matter of days if left on their own. Meanwhile, a jar of preserves can last for years in the fridge and still be good.
A banana is not really a fruit, so they tell me. It's an herb. This means... I don't know, which might be why this is filed under trivia.
At this point the reader might feel a bit shortchanged. With good reason. So as a sop to the disappointed I'll toss in this bit of food prep advice you'll not get on most cooking shows.
How to peel a banana.
I don't know what percentage does it this way, but many peel a banana starting at the attachment end. That is, they tear it open by breaking the skin at the stem. This often as not mushes up the top end of the banana especially the riper it is.
Here is where we can learn from monkeys which open bananas at the other end, at the little black button at the far tip. Try it for yourself if you never have, it's easier. No muss, no fuss, no tools required, no mushed end of the banana. Peel, eat, and enjoy.
5/20/10 Did They Eat Potato Cheops?
Though many people now-a-days like to blame heart disease on our all-so-modern lifestyle and diet, it seems hardening of the arteries and whatnot are as old as the hills. Or as old as the pyramids. As reported in The Wall Street Journal:
[Researchers] were able to identify the hearts, arteries or both in 16 of the mummies, nine of whom had deposits of calcification... "Not only do we have atherosclerosis [artery hardening] now, it was prevalent as long as 3,500 years ago," said Gregory Thomas, a cardiologist and imaging specialist at University of California, Irvine, who was principal investigator of the study. "It is part of the human condition."
They tell me the Mediterranean diet is supposed to help prevent coronary disease, what happened? Surely the ancient Egyptians weren't eating junk food, were they? They didn't eat non-organic produce, did they? How much non-local food did they consume? Did they guzzle lavish doses of Ramses Cola and gobble Tater Tuts or what?
4/20/10 Is the Big Bang Science or Religion?
You may not know it, but the Big Bang origin of the universe was first proposed by Abbé Georges Lemaitre, both a member of the Catholic hierarchy and a scientist. Lemaitre himself privately said this theory was a way to reconcile science with St. Thomas Aquinas' theological dictum of creatio ex nihilo or creation out of nothing.
Another thing you may not know there are many who don't accept the Big Bang Theory. I'm not talking theologians, I'm talking scientists. These scientists, mainly electrical and plasma specialists, not only reject the Big Bang, but great swaths of the standard model of the universe, including dark matter, dark energy, black holes, bending space, gravitational waves, an expanding universe and more. There's even a different theory of how the sun works, not by fusion as is commonly held, but by electricity through plasma.
Agree or disagree, I can pretty well guarantee you'll find it interesting and thought provoking at least. I've even spoofed aspects of the standard model myself with Space Warps and Wefts. Maybe I was onto something and didn't know it.